Analysis

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Last Updated on June 19, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 179

Clifford Geertz is a proponent of symbolic anthropology, and his work Interpretation of Cultures is a collection of essays that attempt to explain the role of symbols in analyzing a culture and constructing meaning within it. Symbolic anthropology is the study of how people create meaning out of their experiences...

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Clifford Geertz is a proponent of symbolic anthropology, and his work Interpretation of Cultures is a collection of essays that attempt to explain the role of symbols in analyzing a culture and constructing meaning within it. Symbolic anthropology is the study of how people create meaning out of their experiences and through their understanding of cultural symbols. Symbols, such as myths and body language, might be the same in different cultures, Geertz claims, but they take on different meanings within those cultures. Thus, behavior must be interpreted within the culture in which it occurs.

Geertz asserts that the role of anthropologists is to interpret the symbols within a culture. He argues that culture does not determine human behavior but instead provides a context for determining behavior. In other words, anthropologists cannot define a culture by a set of laws that characterize it; rather, they must view individual behaviors through the lens of culture in order to interpret their meaning. Furthermore, because people's actions have meaning only within a certain context, culture is thus revealed through a person’s actions.

Form and Content

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 485

The Interpretation of Cultures is a collection of essays spanning the fifteen years of Clifford Geertz’s career as a cultural anthropologist since he took his Ph.D. from Harvard University in 1956. On the whole, the collection reveals a twofold purpose. The first, and perhaps less important, is to demonstrate the development of his ideas—ideas that grew by leaps and bounds out of his fieldwork in Bali and other developing nations. As a consequence, many of the essays contain richly detailed, even anecdotal accounts of day-to-day life. As Geertz puts it, “the majority of the essays are, in fact, empirical studies rather than theoretical disquisitions, for I grow uncomfortable when I get too far away from the immediacies of social life.”

While Geertz never does stray too far from the details of life, the essays nevertheless build toward a second, more important end: a “redefinition of culture.” All the essays, that is, “are basically concerned with pushing forward, instant case by instant case, a particular . . . view of what culture is, what role it plays in social life, and how it ought properly to be studied.” As a result, the book as a whole emerges “somewhat as a treatise—a treatise in cultural theory as developed through a series of concrete analyses.”

The Interpretation of Cultures is divided into five parts, and, as Geertz points out, the essays are arranged in a logical rather than a chronological, order. In general, the logic of Geertz’s arrangement reflects his twofold purpose. Typically, a more recent and more purely theoretical essay introduces the more particular essays that originally led, step by step, to the theoretical stance. In the first essay, “Thick Description: Toward an Interpretive Theory of Culture,” the only essay not previously published elsewhere and constituting the whole of part 1, Geertz attempts to state his present position as generally as he can. It “represents an effort to state more explicitly and systematically” the trend of his thought.

Each of the succeeding four parts follows much the same pattern, a more general and theoretical essay introducing the more specific and developmental essays. Part 2 discusses the concept of man, particularly the concept of mind, the interrelationship between physical and cultural evolution. Part 3 focuses discussion on, as the title of the opening essay puts it, “Religion as a Cultural System,” while part 4, in a corresponding way, focuses discussion on “Ideology as a Cultural System.” The final section, however, appears to be more of a mixed bag. In it, Geertz provides a critical analysis of the structuralist anthropology of Claude Levi-Strauss along with “Person, Time, and Conduct in Bali” and, one of his better-known essays, “Deep Play: Notes on the Balinese Cockfight.” Since concepts of person and time have religious significance in Bali and the cockfight has not only personal but also political significance, part 5 tends, in a very specific way, to sum up the arguments of the preceding parts.

Bibliography

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 54

Brown, R.E. Review in Library Journal. XCVIII (August, 1973), p. 2324.

Dillon, Wilton S. Review in Teachers College Record. LXXVI (September, 1974), pp. 155-159.

Geertz, Clifford. Local Knowledge: Further Essays in Interpretive Anthropology, 1983.

Goodenough, Ward H. “On Cultural Theory,” in Science. CLXXXVI (November 1, 1974), pp. 435-436.

Greene, Maxine. Review in Harvard Educational Review. XLIV (May, 1974), pp. 331-336.

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